The Obama administration says it had no choice but to release almost all of the 169 immigrants with homicide convictions that were let back onto the streets last year, claiming court decisions gave officials no choice in the matter — but it’s promising a new system to better screen who gets let out.
Of the 169 immigrants with homicide-related convictions released in fiscal year 2013, all but 15 were required to be let go because of specific court orders or because the immigrants had been held for too long under the rules established by a sweeping 2001 Supreme Court case, the Homeland Security Department said in an Aug. 15 letter to Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement chief Thomas S. Winkowski said they’re changing the rules to make sure a senior supervisor screens the release of those kinds of immigrants in the future.
“Ensuring that our enforcement policies and procedures are best suited to protect[ing] national security and public safety is paramount,” Mr. Winkowski told Mr. Grassley. “To make certain that we are doing everything we can in this regard, I am instituting new procedures requiring that an appropriate senior-level supervisor must approve before ICE releases potentially dangerous individuals.”
The 116 murderers were a fraction of the 36,007 criminals ICE released in 2013. The criminals had convictions ranging from homicide and manslaughter to drunken driving and sex crimes.
ICE says many of those it released were subject to some form of monitoring while out on the streets, such as an ankle bracelet. Others were required to call in to verify their whereabouts.
Mr. Grassley, though, said the administration needs to do more to warn localities that potentially dangerous criminals have been sent to live near them.
“The public needs to know when a person in the country illegally, and who has been convicted of a homicide, is released into their communities,” said the Iowa lawmaker and ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
According to data from ICE, the murderers are “associated” with 134 communities in the U.S. It was unclear whether that meant that’s where they were released or whether that’s where they currently reside.
California led the list with murderers associated with 48 different ZIP codes, including one in tony Beverly Hills and another in Murietta, a community that saw rallies objecting to plans to use the area to house some of the illegal immigrant children surging across the border in recent months.
New York City alone had 11 locations associated with the released murderers, spanning four of the five boroughs.
Even states not traditionally thought of as destinations for immigrants, such as Kentucky, Oklahoma and Wisconsin, each had one location associated with a released murderer, while Alaska, Iowa and Louisiana each had two localities.
The Obama administration says its hands are tied by the 2001 court decision, the Zadvydas case, which ruled that most immigration detention is not supposed to be punitive — meaning immigrants cannot be held indefinitely.
That means that when governments refuse to take back their citizens, the U.S. government is stuck in a bind and usually has to release them onto its streets. Mr. Winkowski said that decision and other court orders were responsible for 154 of the 169 releases.
Of the 169, Mr. Winkowski said one was granted voluntary departure and has left the country. He didn’t say what has happened to the others, and ICE officials declined to comment beyond what was in the letter.
Mr. Grassley has introduced legislation to clarify the law and let authorities continue to detain dangerous criminal immigrants.
And immigration experts said the Obama administration already has some tools it could use to force other countries to take their citizens back, including suspending diplomatic relations or curbing visas to come to the U.S. for government officials or citizens of recalcitrant countries.
“This administration hasn’t pursued that possibility, and State Department people don’t want to raise the issue because State Department feels immigration is small potatoes; they’ve got bigger fish to fry,” said Jan Ting, a law professor at Temple University and former high-ranking official at the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Mr. Ting also said the Zadvydas ruling allowed exceptions for dangerous immigrants and said the government should vigorously use those exceptions to keep hardened criminals off the streets.
ICE had initially said it was required to release 75 percent of murderers, then reduced that number to 72 percent. But the latest letter boosts that calculation to 91 percent.
Mr. Grassley had asked for more details on the murderers, including the judge and court that had ordered the release. Mr. Winkowski said his agency didn’t keep those statistics and said that would have to come from the Justice Department.
Mr. Grassley had also asked what conditions were placed on each convict who was released, but Mr. Winkowski didn’t address that in his letter.